This year I have 14 albums of the year. Numbers 14-8 are covered here, while numbers 7-1 will be covered in a few days. Enjoy!
14. State Center – The Hasslers. “An impressively smooth fusion of country, indie-pop and folk; they’re so adept at handling the genre mashing that it’s hard to pick out exactly where one stops and the other starts.” (full review)
12. Songs of Loss – JPH. “Songs of Loss would be hard to explain even if it weren’t so openly dealing with the loss of the artist’s father. … Imagine if LCD Soundsystem had committed to only using acoustic instruments but still wanted to make the same sort of rhythms, or if Jandek had become dancier. These are strange things to try to imagine, I am aware.” (full review)
11. Gardens – Ryan Dugre. “The solo guitar record has a zen-like focus and a clarity that make the music incredibly soothing to a harried mind. … It sounds like audio origami–complex and angular, but only when looked at up close: from afar it seems beautiful, unified, and peaceful.” (full review)
10. The Road – John John Brown. “Brilliant, drawing heavily from traditional Appalachian sounds and modern folk revivalists to create 10 songs of back-porch folk that are fully realized in scope and yet casual in mood. Brown’s dusky voice, an immaculate production job, and a deft arranging hand makes this duality possible.” (full review)
9. Crooked Orchards – Darling Valley. “Stuffed full of tunes with vocal melodies that I can’t say no to, elite instrumental performances, and enough lyrical poignancy to knock the socks off a skeptic or two. It’s the sort of album that makes you remember why folk-pop was fun in the first place.” (full review)
8. S/t – Moda Spira. “A beautiful, intriguing work that combines pensive indie-pop, thoughtful electro-pop, R&B and more into a distinctive sound. The lyrics are just as impressive, tackling the little-discussed topic of marital commitment with candor, verve, and impact.” (full review)
Mourning itself is so personal that it is largely insulated from standard interpretation of people’s actions: unbeatable legends stumble and expectations falter. It is so hard to deal with that some people would rather call it a mental illness. Some people write albums in response. Grief albums are not common (at least, not near as common as breakup albums), but they do exist. The Collection’s Ars Moriendi is a revelatory example. However, grief albums are uncommonly hard to review. How do you explain the sound of someone’s ache, nevermind judge whether it’s good or not? Yet people who write about music are called upon to do this from time to time, and JPH‘s Songs of Lossis the latest call to somehow muddle through.
Songs of Loss would be hard to explain even if it weren’t so openly dealing with the loss of the artist’s father. The music itself draws a triangle between outsider atonality and erratic rhythm (“Song 7,” “Song 2”), ambient electro-acoustic music (“Song 8,” “Song 4”), and atypical but recognizable singer-songwriter work (“Song 1,” “Song 6”). Each individual song leans toward one point of the triangle, but the traces of each influence stamp themselves on every piece. Imagine if LCD Soundsystem had committed to only using acoustic instruments but still wanted to make the same sort of rhythms, or if Jandek had become dancier. These are strange things to try to imagine, I am aware.
There’s one other connection to LCD Soundsystem: “Someone Great” is the rare song that sees an artist obviously deep in the mourning process turning out complex, idiosyncratic work that fits within a pre-existing ouerve. (“I Hope You Die” by Wye Oak also falls in this category.) JPH’s work here is raw with grief: the lyrics of each tune, insofar as they exist, are specifically about questions of death and dying. But the work is also carefully developed within a specific vision. Jordan Hoban’s modus operandi on this release is to create a drone and manipulate what goes on atop it. However, the drones are unusual, as “Song 0” loops a hiccuping tom-and-snare-rim beat; “Song 3” puts a distant casio on repeat; “Song 6” uses a chanted lyric stream as the base for dissonant piano; and first part of “Song 8” builds a complicated ostinato from accordion, shaker, and palm-muted guitar. The 8 and a half minutes of “Song 8” are almost minimalist in a Reich-ian way, as the guitar noodling on top of the structure is almost more “variation” than riffing.
On top of those structures Hoban’s whispery voice alternates between talking, singing, and whispering. This is a very personal record, and so I am not going to talk about the lyrics at all beyond that. The overall effect of the instruments + lyrics is much different than a standard album. I am not much for the “art can create empathy with other people” argument, because not much art has ever made me feel like I was walking in other people’s shoes. However, the atypical musical environment and close proximity with the lyrics about death made me aware that I would definitely not have thought to create this. I am aware of being very near someone else’s experience of grief. But it’s not an overtly crushingly sad release; the sadness is omnipresent, but often in the spaces between the background and the frontmatter. There’s a palpable sense of absence that Hoban has carefully cultivated. Songs of Loss is an unique album that lets you enter into a grieving process both artistically and emotionally. That’s valuable time spent, regardless of whether you’ve been through a death recently.
Fans of lo-fi slowcore like Songs:Ohia, Elephant Micah, and old-school Damien Jurado will have something new to cheer about in Tender Mercy. As Someone Else You Embrace the Moment in Us consists of five songs that never get louder than a single fingerpicked guitar, Mark Kramer’s forlorn voice, and tape hiss. The songs are slow, low, and heavy on atmosphere: discerning between the songs is possible (there are breaks in the tape hiss to mark song changes), but it’s not really the best way to enjoy this set of tunes. Instead, it’s best to let it wash over you; there’s enough gentle reverb on the tracks to imagine that you and Kramer are in a big room where he’s singing just to you. If you move too quickly, you’ll miss the tranquil beauty in it.
This is music to experience, not to sing along to or play in the background of your life; the nuances of the individual performances make the tunes what they are. Individual voice warbles, the pluck of one string harder than the last, and the subtle changes in timing that suggest emotions behind the work are all compelling. The songs seem very simple on the surface, but there is depth to be plumbed here. Some variation could be incorporated in future work to help differentiate between tracks, but this release is still great for fans who enjoy more difficult music (i.e. old-school Mountain Goats, Jandek, Silver Jews, et al.).
Australia is my favorite international music scene. The latest thing to fall in my lap from The Land Down Under is the buzzy, friendly power-pop of Major Leagues‘ Weird Season EP. The Aussie quartet plays chipper, female-fronted tunes that strike a nice balance between energetic and chill; you can listen to these tunes while driving, surfing, or while laying around in your backyard. Each activity would bring out a different nuance: the driving rhythm section, the sweet guitar tone, or the laconic vocal delivery. Weird Season is a fun way to remind yourself that it may be winter, but summer’s coming. Actually, it’s summer in Australia. Ponder that.
Aaron Lee Tasjan employs a songwriting style on the Crooked River Burning EP that mirrors with Joe Pug’s newer work: a folk troubadour working with a full band. Both singer/songwriters bring their own unique confidence and internal rhythm to the work, which makes resulting songs an interesting mix of personal and group efforts. The balance works best on “Everything I Have is Broken” and “Junk Food and Drugs,” which give enough space to Tasjan’s voice and guitar that his personality shines through. Both have intricate lyrics, quirky vocal rhythms, and an overall sense of energetic possibility. They would be a blast to sing along with live, certainly. “Number One” is a hushed ballad in Jackson Browne style that surprised me with its depth of emotion and tasteful inclusion of strings; it shows off the best of his solo work. Tasjan has strong songwriting chops, and I look forward to seeing what he puts out after the Crooked River Burning EP. Photo by BP Fallon.
Stephen Carradini and Lisa Whealy write reviews of instrumental, folk, and singer/songwriter music. We write about those trying to make the next step in their careers and established artists.